by Gilbert Keith

It is done. C’est arrivé. And it happened almost exactly the way I had hoped, but in a totally unexpected way.

But let’s leave aside that cipher text for a minute, and dig into an obsession of Corporate America.


Corporate America loves goals. Goals are a great way to get projects done, explore new markets, find ways to serve customers better, etc. But goals must be “meaningful” in some sense. So for several years the mantra has been SMART goals. I’ll let Wikipedia do the necessary elaboration (via a direct quote from the original author to boot!)

Ideally speaking, each corporate, department, and section objective should be:

  • Specific – target a specific area for improvement
  • Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
  • Attainable – assuring that an end can be achieved.
  • Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
  • Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

If you’re a visual thinker, there’s an illustrated wikihow article walking you through the process.

Admittedly, this seems like a decent framework for approaching goal setting. There’s something in it for all: the “specific” attribute requires the visionary to hone his/her vision; the quant loves the “measurable” part; the operations honcho gets to build the right environment to make the goal “attainable”; planners love it when a goal has a timeline; and lastly, the rank and file love it when expectations are “realistic”. In fact, this framework is so popular that it almost feels a natural part of personnel management. HR departments at MIT and Yale espouse it, the wellness program at Stanford wants you to use the framework for your health goals, etc.

the framework vs the process

While the framework might be satisfactory, I think there is something lacking in the process of goal setting. I must admit here, I’ve historically thought myself to be an awful goal-setter, so perhaps it’s no wonder that I find the process to be lacking. The goals I’ve set during my career have been “unnatural.” There are two major bugs in the goal setting process that I have encountered:

  1. I have, like most people grappling with goals, tended to setting goals at arbitrary times (eg January 1, or during corporate performance reviews, or at the beginning of a semester.) Perhaps the worst time for setting goals is when a deadline beckons.
  2. I have, like most people grappling with goals, tended to setting goals for the sake of setting goals. Perhaps the worst goals are the ones which are set for the sake of setting goals. In short, they are contrived.

Let me now posit a causal mechanism for why “goal setting” as we know it is bad:

Goals you set for the sake of goal setting or to satisfy a deadline tend to channel you into activities that occupy the path of least resistance; i.e. on topics which are incrementally related to something that already occupies your time.

looking backward

“Goal setting for the sake of goal setting” has overwhelmingly been the standard in my brief career. I have mostly made stupid goals at stupid times with stupid results. In my second year at Epic, one of my goals was, roughly, “to create a dev log in 2012 that will be be bug free”. The goal was  certainly SMART since, well, I had been instructed to make a SMART goal:

  • specific: I would create development without bugs in it.
  • measurable: I would create exactly 1 dev log that would result in 0 bugs. Those are metrics since they have numbers.
  • attainable: I had the wherewithal to create 1 dev log.
  • realistic: I had some experience in writing code and I was confident in my ability to make it happen
  • time related: I would get the development done in the specific calendar year.

“A truly SMART goal, how wonderful!” I surely had thought to myself when I made this goal.

more like, “how idiotic!” amirite?!

Yeah, seriously, it sounds like the silliest goal today! My then manager even told me it was stupid (although he did so most politely and without making me feel bad about it.) Of course, looking back at the whole thing, I’m not proud of it for a minute. Here’s how that goal panned out:

  • Because it had to be attainable, I chose not to expand my horizons. So I defaulted to doing something I already knew how to do (actually just mimicked previous work), and in the process didn’t learn anything new besides, well, something meta about the process of Development at Epic (which will, due to a variety of cultural differences between development processes, be useless elsewhere.)
  • Because I bought into “realistic”, I focused on exactly 1 dev log. Who’s proud of doing 1 piece of development when the feature request list is running in the thousands or more?
  • Because it had to be “time related” somehow, I gave myself an arbitrarily long timeframe: a whole year for 1 dev log! What a joke.

Perhaps if all of the above sounds gobbledygook to you, then consider the analogy of a mayoral candidate’s campaign promise to “fix the streets” during his time in office. The candidate probably has a 1000-word manifesto on 24-hour pothole repair  with  well-defined SMART goals. But those goals are assign wrong priorities and pursuing the safe option (repair) at the expense of something truly revolutionary (expand public transit). There’s probably a lot more to be said about how maintaining a complex code base is like maintaining the streets. While I’d like to explore it further (and believe you me, I spent a solid hour thinking about this) I’ll pick up on that thought some other day.

SMART redux

Well, now that I’ve spent about 900 words smearing fecal matter on the notion of a SMART goal, let me talk about a SMART goal I made recently. On July 9, 2015, about 5 days after I had finished my second half marathon of this year, I had made this bold commitment:

While I was weasle-y in the original wording of goal, it was clear in my mind that it was:

  • Specific: I had actually planned on running at least 500 miles before the marathon, and that was always the milestone.
  • Measurable: We have these things called cell phones with GPS signals that allow you to measure your running distance.
  • Attainable: I was physically fit when I made the goal, and thought that I had adequate time to put into training.
  • Realistic: 500 miles over 160 days meant around 22 miles a week. I had done 70-80 miles in a month before, so doing it for 5 months straight seemed realistic.
  • Time related: I had exactly 160 days to meet the goal.

And meet it I have. On Dec 10, 2015, I finished my 501st mile. I was really proud of it.

But whence the pride? What is so different between the “1 dev log” goal and “running 500 miles” goal that causes me to curse upon the former and be proud of the latter?

meaningful in some sense

I had previously imposed a constraint on the goal-setting process that I have failed to elaborate on. I claimed: “But goals must be ‘meaningful’ in some sense,” and proceeded to ignore it word throughout. I think herein lies the failure in goal-setting for the sake of goal setting: it completely does away with what’s meaningful to the one setting the goal.

My “dev log” goal was devoid of any meaning. The goal had to be set regardless of whether I cared about it, and it has caused a product whose utility I question today. I could have pursued further development projects and possibly produced something I would have been proud of today. There are more valuable non-development projects I could have done, but they are hypotheticals which merit no further comment.

On the other hand, let’s take my running goal. There is a rich history to this goal that I will try to encapsulate thusly. I had never trained specifically for any race that I had run previously. I just dicked my way around and ran arbitrary distances. “Pushing myself” was a foreign concept then. For my first five half marathons it meant repeated disappointment: I always thought I could finish a half in under two hours. I missed that goal with each of my first five halfs, during which I had finish times of 2:12, 2:31 (awful weather), 2:05, 2:04 and 2:03 respectively. Funnily enough, in late Sept 2013, I had made this post about how my running is inconsistent:

But I found some extra time then (I’d just quit Epic). I somehow set a goal for myself with a 10-miler in October 2013, which I intended to do under 1:30:00. I ran it in 1:25:55; I’m not sure what I sacrificed to Hermes that got me my winged sandals, but that was a > 30s/mile beat, which is solid in my book. Since that fateful day I have not looked back. I somehow found the drive to keep setting myself a race goal and try to beat it. Thenceforth it started happening with an alarming frequency: in Aug 2014, I ran the Oakland half (with some hills!) in 1:52; in Dec,  an abbreviated half in under 8:30 pace. In Feb 2015, a 5k in 23:24 (24:00 goal); in the summer I finished 2 halfs in 1:48 and 1:49 respectively (goal was 1:51 for both of them.)

and i would run 500 more

… which brings me to the 500 mile goal. Again, I had never setup a specific training goal for a race prior to this. I always relied on my instincts and a little bit of adrenaline to get  past my goal times for my prior races. But  marathons are in a league of their own. Running 26 miles seems to require an other-worldly mental fortitude. Here’s another thing it requires: an ability to finish strong and at a reasonable time. From my past experiences, if I start averaging more than 10:00 miles, I’m probably going to do something incredibly stupid out of the sheer terror of realizing that I have ages left to finish; 4 hours is enough.

When I signed up to run my marathon, I knew I could not just hope to start at 7 am on race day and expect to finish strong without a lot of training; that was out of the question. One does not just double race distance so easily! I needed to convince myself that I could achieve my actual goal, which (still) is to finish strong on Dec 13, 2015. But my 500 mile goal has been a proxy to reassure myself that I could really start scaling up my running commitments. And so, on July 4, 2015, I decided to commit to the goal with all intents of finishing it. From the history came the meaning, from the meaning emanated the perseverance, and from the perseverance came the accomplishment that I am proud of.

but in a totally unexpected way

On Black Friday, I had 37 miles left (after a stupendous pre-turkey long run.)  As of 5 pm last Saturday, after a week’s worth of lazing about I also had 37 miles left. I somehow had to make up all the distance miles in about 5 days (to give myself a couple of rest days.) But, I got around to it, and as of yesterday, it is done. So, after I’d cleaned up yesterday, I decided to stop at the cookie store en route to Little Woodrow’s; it was 8:53 PM when I entered, just as the lady behind the counter had started preparing for her 9 PM closing time. It took me less than a nanosecond to consider what I wanted: 3 chocolate chip and 3 white chocolate chip + macadamia cookies. “Did I want that warmed up?” “Yes, please!”

The kicker was the moment when I extended my arm to hand the lady my credit card. “Oh, no don’t worry about it.” “Are you sure?” “Yeah I’m about to close anyway.” It was redemption for finishing my goal in my stated boundaries. I headed over to one of the open-air establishments nearby, to spend a few minutes with friends who were watching the Football game. I allowed myself to indulge a little further, and relished one last beer before the race.